Police Veteran in George Floyd Killing Turns Blame to Rookie Officers

Police Veteran in George Floyd Killing Turns Blame to Rookie Officers

MINNEAPOLIS — The video footage of a white police officer, his hands in his pockets, kneeling on the neck of a Black man for more than eight minutes in May left a searing image that fueled anger and protest across the country.

But as the officer, Derek Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, stands accused of murder in the death of George Floyd, he is pointing blame away from himself — and toward two rookie officers who were on the scene of the killing and whom he had helped train.

If the other officers, who were the first to interact with Mr. Floyd on the evening he died, had behaved differently, everything might have been different, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer wrote in a motion seeking separate trials for the four officers who are charged with crimes in the case.

Mr. Chauvin, who was fired from the Police Department and is charged with second-degree murder, made his first in-person court appearance on Friday in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in March. His lawyers, and those of the other defendants, are seeking to move the trial away from Minneapolis, as well as to split what has been expected to be a single trial into four.

The three other officers who were on the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, which can carry as serious a punishment as the charge against Mr. Chauvin. From the time charges were announced against the four officers, there had been indications that they would not present a united defense, with the men faulting one another for the death. Some of those tensions were on display in the courtroom on Friday.

None of the other officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — appeared to make eye contact with Mr. Chauvin, although at one point Mr. Chauvin, who appeared thinner than he had a few months ago, looked over at them.

Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng, two inexperienced officers who were the first to arrive on the scene of a complaint that Mr. Floyd had used fake money, failed to properly assess and de-escalate the situation, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer argued in a court filing this week, noting that Mr. Chauvin arrived to the scene later.

“If EMS had arrived just three minutes sooner, Mr. Floyd may have survived,” the lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, wrote. “If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr. Floyd may have survived. If Kueng and Lane had recognized the apparent signs of an opioid overdose and rendered aid, such as administering naloxone, Mr. Floyd may have survived.”

The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled that Mr. Floyd’s death was a homicide, saying his heart stopped beating and his lungs stopped taking in air while he was being restrained by a neck compression. The medical examiner also cited fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use as conditions that might have increased the likelihood of death.

Prosecutors rejected suggestions that Mr. Chauvin — or any of the other individual former officers — could shift blame away from the larger group.

“The defendants watched the air go out of Mr. Floyd’s body together,” said Neal Katyal, a special assistant attorney general who is part of the prosecution team, led by the office of Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general. “And the defendants caused Mr. Floyd’s death together.”

Judge Peter Cahill of Hennepin County District Court is expected to decide later whether to separate the officers’ trials or to move them out of Minneapolis. He rejected requests by the officers’ lawyers to introduce records of previous run-ins Mr. Floyd had with law enforcement authorities, including an encounter with the Minneapolis police in 2019.

But Judge Cahill said he could reconsider his decision once defense lawyers gain access to body camera footage from officers at the scene of the episode in 2019.

Outside the courthouse on Friday, Mr. Floyd’s relatives and their lawyers expressed outrage over suggestions that drugs or earlier run-ins with the police were relevant to the killing of Mr. Floyd at the hands of the police.

“The only overdose was an overdose of excessive force and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department,” Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the family, said. “It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time.”

All along, the messages of the four officers who were present on the day of Mr. Floyd’s death have diverged.

“There are very likely going to be antagonistic defenses presented at trial,” Mr. Lane’s lawyer, Earl P. Gray, wrote in his motion for a separate trial for his client. “It is plausible that all officers have a different version of what happened and officers place blame on one another.”

The lawyers for Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng — the least experienced officers — have focused blame on Mr. Chauvin. Another officer, Mr. Thao, has argued that he was mostly a bystander, keeping onlookers away from the scene as the other officers tried to arrest Mr. Floyd.

In Mr. Chauvin’s motion, his lawyer noted that both Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng had been on the scene longer, struggling to arrest Mr. Floyd, who appeared to be in the throes of a panic attack, refusing to enter the back of the police cruiser and saying he was claustrophobic.

“Mr. Chauvin could reasonably argue that it was the inaction of Lane and Kueng,” by not calling paramedics sooner or de-escalating the situation, “that caused George Floyd’s death,” Mr. Nelson wrote.

Mr. Chauvin, 44, is charged with the most serious crimes, second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He remains in custody and faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted. The three other former officers have been released on bail.

Mr. Chauvin appeared in court under tight security as protesters gathered outside.

The block around the courthouse was barricaded.

Matt Furber reported from Minneapolis, Tim Arango from Los Angeles and John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo.

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